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Southern Gaza Palestinians Begin Rebuilding - 2004-06-02

Israel has begun to ease a three-week closure of the Gaza Strip, allowing shipments of badly needed consumer goods, including milk products, fruits, and cigarettes. Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, was the area hit hardest by last month's Israeli military incursion.

It is slow going on the streets of Rafah's Brazil neighborhood, where cars inch along torn-up, dusty streets and people pick their way around sewage-filled ditches and mounds of stone and rubble. The area looks like a war zone, and that is exactly what it was just two weeks ago.

The Brazil neighborhood was among several targeted by Israeli troops when they moved in last month looking for tunnels they say Palestinian militants use to smuggle weapons across the nearby Egyptian border.

The troops came with tanks and bulldozers to demolish dozens of houses in Rafah that Israel says were being used by militants to hide tunnel entrances and to shoot at Israeli soldiers patrolling the border. The heavy machines also knocked down power lines, broke sewage and water pipes, and dug up the streets.

Juma'a Abu Hamad, 57, has pitched a make-shift tent made of old blankets. Inside, some cushions are scattered on the ground. This is where he spends much of his day now.

This was once his house, where he and about 30 other family members lived. Now, Juma'a Abu Hamad points to all that is left: a pile of rubble.

"The tanks came here," he said. "First thing they did was open fire on our home. There were a lot of people inside the house, and then they went back and brought the bulldozer with them and started demolishing our home while we were in, like what you see, the whole house has been wrecked."

Mr. Abu Hamad says the family lost everything in the demolition, including cash, gold jewelry, and other belongings. The family now spends nights at a local school, which has become a temporary shelter.

Just around the corner, the Qishta family has fared no better. They have put a few plastic chairs on the broken concrete slabs where the family home once stood.

Fathiya Qishta, 55, remembers the commotion outside the day the Israeli troops came.

"I heard people, children screaming outside," she said. "I went outside to see what was going on and I saw that everyone was just grabbing the children and leaving. Then they came to our house and started demolishing it. We took the children and left. We lost everything."

The family is staying with relatives, but hopes to rebuild its home here. Fathiya's husband, Sayid Ahmed, says he does not know if that will be possible.

"I have no idea what is going to happen," said Mr. Ahmed. "They have been distributing help and until now I haven't received anything yet."

The children in Rafah are back in school, shops are open even though there is a shortage of goods to buy due to the closure imposed on the Gaza Strip, and traffic is back on the streets. But there is no talk of any return to normalcy, and those living here express a mixture of despair, frustration and anger.

Rafah's mayor, Sayid Zorob, says he believes he has failed his people.

"You feel that you are nothing when any kid in your city asks you for the minimum service and you fail to achieve it," said Mr. Zorob. "We feel that we are nothing and I am thinking to leave my job because I failed to achieve the minimum for a secure, safe life for my city. All the playing cards are in the Israeli hands, it is not in our hand."

The Israeli operation in late May lasted a week. Then the soldiers withdrew. But they are never far away and move in periodically to continue their search for suspected militants and weapons. The border to neighboring Egypt is closed off by Israeli troops and soldiers guard nearby Jewish settlements.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is vowing to dismantle Israeli settlements and pull his troops out of the Gaza Strip. While the political debate over the Sharon plan rages in Israel, there is little debate about it in Rafah. Palestinians say they would welcome any Israeli withdrawal, but they do not believe it will really happen.

As he sits atop the rubble of his home, Juma'a Abu Hamad says he has no faith in Israeli promises or those by world leaders who say they want to resolve this conflict.

"I do not think anyone in the world is trying to solve the problem, Clinton, Bush," he said. "If they think just one second, the leaders, about what is going on here, they would solve it, but they do not want to solve it."

More than 140,000 Palestinians live in Rafah. More than 75 percent of them are refugees, whose families either fled or were driven from their homes when Israel was created. Many, like Mr. Abu Hamad, continue to live in sprawling camps. They say they feel they are at the mercy of Israel's military might and forgotten by the rest of the world.